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Belarusian group warns of new religious controls

27 October 2023

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President Lukashenko before a meeting with President Putin, in Kyrgyzstan, this month

President Lukashenko before a meeting with President Putin, in Kyrgyzstan, this month

THE ecumenical opposition group Christian Vision, in Belarus, warns that President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian government could soon begin restricting the activities of minority Churches under a new Religion Law, which would require Christian communities to reapply for legal status.

“The new law’s adoption provides for the re-registration of all religious organisations within a year — it is already possible to predict which of them may be liquidated,” Christian Vision explains in a statement on its website.

“Since 2020, the Belarusian regime has purged the media — independent outlets, websites, online channels, and social networks, as well as symbols associated with peaceful protest. . . Individuals who share information from such sources face prosecution, while media linked to Belarusian religious figures are now being systematically recognised as extremist.”

The group has posted the warning amid final preparations for the law, which will affect the rights and activities of 7180 registered communities of faith around the country. It says that its own social-media channels have been branded “extremist” by Belarusian courts in September, and that “extremist” labels have also been applied to a sermon by the Orthodox Archbishop Artemy (Kishchanka) of Hrodna, and to the Russian-language Telegram social-media channel, to criminalise anyone who quotes from them.

Russia has gained military and logistical support for its war against Ukraine from President Lukashenko, whose disputed August 2020 re-election, after 26 years in power (News, 14 August 2020), was followed by harsh repression and international sanctions.

The Council of Europe, which suspended Belarus in March 2022, launched a 15-point action plan in February to support “civil-society and democracy representatives” in the country, whose political prisoners — currently put at 1697 by human-rights groups — include Ales Bialiatski, winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, as well as numerous Christian dissidents.

In August, Christian Vision named 19 Orthodox clergy, 27 Roman Catholic priests, and 14 Protestant pastors targeted for “persecution” over the past three years in Belarus, which has hosted Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group since its withdrawal from Ukraine in the wake of its June rebellion.

Besides tightening control by requiring church communities to re-register, the new religion law, approved on 11 October, will prohibit missionary activities that contradict “the law and ideology of the Belarusian state”, and require signed parental applications for children seeking religious education under government supervision.

Registered religious leaders will also have to be permanently resident in Belarus, with founding community members listed and tracked, while state officials will be given stronger powers to ban groups deemed to violate legal conditions.

Human-rights experts have warned that a previous 2002 Religion Law was similarly used to de-legalise certain parishes and communities, while three UN special rapporteurs warned President Lukashenko’s government in August that the proposed new measures would violate Belarus’s obligations under international law.

In its final legislative stages, the law has also prompted criticisms from Lutheran, Baptist, and Muslim leaders, as well as from the Belarusian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which warned in a statement in June that its expected ban on minority languages and curbs on monastic communities, pilgrimages, and religious literature would “fundamentally affect” freedom of conscience and “complicate the dynamics of state-confessional relations”.

In its report at the weekend, Christian Vision said that a pastor from the Belarusian Protestant Union of Full Gospel Churches, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, was imprisoned in August for complaining about the bulldozing of his chapel in June.

The report says that prosecutors in Minsk have since accused the Protestant Union of making “groundless claims about persecution” on its social-media channels, which were also ruled “extremist” at the end of August.

A court is currently determining whether Pastor Goncharenko’s New Life Full Gospel Church, founded in Minsk in 1992, should be formally declared illegal, making any community activity punishable by a prison sentence of two years.

Christian Vision’s director, the Orthodox theologian Natallia Vasilevich, said that the Protestant protests had contrasted with the stance of Belarus’s Roman Catholic bishops, whose silence about human-rights violations had been “devastating” to local Christians.

“Far from hiding their violence, the police are now highlighting it — to show no one is protected and to instil a climate of fear,” Ms Vasilevich said. “We know many people think this isn’t the time for conflict with the government; but it would be good if certain church leaders could act as witnesses and be more radical in their Christian faith.”

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